I have felt compelled to comment on the Law society paper and further on the recent hysteria it seems to have caused. I am a partner in a very small firm, our criminal department employs 6 duty solicitors, 1 clerk, a trainee and 2 support staff. We cover Manchester and Crewe/Macclesfield.
Can I begin by asking for calm and for some perspective. This LS paper is just that, it is not law, it is not agreed by the MOJ and frankly it has very little chance of being implemented, in full at least anyway.
There have been few more critical of the Law Society than me over the years. I am not overly impressed with their paper, particularly the timing although there are some very sensible considerations. As a profession we have enjoyed massive recent success with the no to PCT campaign, Rachel’s petition has passed the 100k mark, CG has u-turned on “client choice”, the opposition to the proposed reforms in parliament are very strong and already we are seeing concessions slowly being dragged out of the MOJ.
I know as a lowly committee member of the CLSA just how much work and effort has been put in to this fight by the various representatives of the organisations involved and it strikes me as odd to say the least that in spite of all the success enjoyed thus far the Criminal Bar and so many solicitors have turned on The Law Society so readily.
I set out my views on the Paper below and hope to convince some of you at least that actually there is some sense to it but regardless of your view this in-fighting is only harming our joint cause. Thus far we have succeeded because we have shown a united front, we have not bowed to pressure for the MOJ, we have sent a message to the MOJ that we will stand together and fall together. The message now being sent is that we are divided, disjointed, lacking in leadership and order and for what it’s worth if I were the MOJ I would be laughing at us right now.
And shame on the huge majority of the profession who couldn’t be bothered to reply to any of the recent consultations and who are now so keen to criticise.
Consolidation of the market
The paper recognises that there is need for consolidation in the market, not because the Law Society has some ulterior motive that will benefit larger firms, nor because this is what the MOJ want in their efforts to cut costs but because it is a simple commercial fact that when work levels drop a smaller number of providers than before will survive.
The LS have not taken the easy approach which would have been to acknowledge there must be a cull of the number firms, rather they have (and I must say with very minimal manipulation required) suggested reforms that will motivate/influence a consolidation of the market.
Their suggestions allow for criminal firms of all sizes, new and old to continue in business as before and unrestricted but with a little push towards mergers should they consider it something they may or may not wish to consider. This is, as I see it extremely fair and actually completely the correct approach. Nobody is forced to do anything but it recognises that all of its members may be feeling the pain and so offers them an opportunity to carry on as they are or make changes as needed.
This is not a blow to small firms nor is it a handout to larger firms. It is sensible commercial application of the circumstances for all members.

Amendments to the Duty solicitor scheme

Again, the feedback seems to suggest that the proposals only serve the larger firms and that they restrict the smaller firms from competing. This is absolute rubbish. The proposed reform to the duty scheme is intended to reduce abuse which in some areas is a problem. It also has the benefit of some (although I accept limited) costs benefits.
The larger firms already have a greater share of the duty slots, there is no realistic prospect that the smaller firms can compete at their level without major financial input so the proposed system does not really change anything. Anyone who thinks the larger firms should be allocated the same number of slots under any new system should have voted for the communist party.
The bottom line is that firms, large and small compete on quality and there is no reason why firms with a smaller number of duty slots cannot continue to compete as before under the new scheme proposed.
I recognise that duty solicitors will somewhat lose their inherent value of such status and that is regrettable. I have however, always believed that the requirement to attain such status to be able to do the work already being done was very unreasonable and unnecessarily costly.
Frankly i’m not sure if I am in favour of the proposed reforms to the duty scheme but rightly or wrongly the proposal does not favour large over small firms in any way more than the current system does.

Increased regulation and quality control
In an industry where we are required to undertake 3 years of degree level study, a further year long post graduate diploma and then 2 years of full time on the job training which is then followed by a further intense Professional skills course before qualification can be achieved plus continuing professional indemnity throughout the career it seems barmy to me to require further assessment of our skill set to ensure compliance sufficient to justify the ongoing award of a legal aid contract.
Take into account the fact that those useless amongst us will suffer rejection by clients, the wrath of a cantankerous Judge and eventually the loss of peer respect and even job I fail to understand why we need to suffer additional and what seems to be very rigorous regular assessment whether it be for duty status, police station qualification or via some firm wide accredited quality mark.
The SRA and the ombudsman are also there to help weed out problem lawyers providing inadequate levels of service.

Additional suggested methods of achieving savings from further efficiencies within the system
It is not my area of expertise and I have limited access to figures per department etc so this is tough area upon which to comment. However, any suggestions to save elsewhere which are reasonable cannot be a bad thing if it preserves money for legal aid. We all agree that the legal aid rates payable to solicitors and barrister cannot be cut any further, however, I think we can all also agree that there can be properly made efficiencies elsewhere which will save money for the MOJ and we should all work hard to identify those and share our thoughts in this regard with the various groups representing us in the fight.

Final Note
There has been much criticism of certain firms and individuals recently. Can I remind everyone that as lawyers it is our job to present arguments, to convince others of our case, even to change their minds/opinions. The recent spat of criticism and what in some cases I can only describe as bullying shows us all up as a profession so please stick to well presented, well reasoned arguments and if you can’t do that you have no business in this game so I suggest you look for another job now before it’s too late and we are all chasing the same positions this time next year.

Oliver Gardner
Howards Solicitors